I am providence the life.., p.76
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 76
When asked by A. H. Brown, a Canadian member of the Transatlantic Circulator, why he didn’t write more about “ordinary people,” since this might increase the audience for his work, Lovecraft replied with towering scorn:
I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.
This is Lovecraft’s first explicit expression of the view he would later call “cosmicism.” Cosmicism is at once a metaphysical position (an awareness of the vastness of the universe in both space and time), an ethical position (an awareness of the insignificance of human beings within the realm of the universe), and an aesthetic position (a literary expression of this insignificance, to be effected by the minimising of human character and the display of the titanic gulfs of space and time). The strange thing about it is that it was so late in being articulated, and also that it was so feebly exhibited in his weird fiction up to this time—indeed, really up to 1926. If Lovecraft is to be believed, cosmicism as a metaphysical and ethical position was initially inspired by his study of astronomy beginning in 1902 and was already established by his late teenage years. In terms of his fiction, “Dagon” (1917) and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919) only hint at cosmicism; and I have already noted that Lovecraft’s fascination with Dunsany (of whom he extravagantly wrote in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”: “His point of view is the most truly cosmic of any held in the literature of any period”) did not seem to extend to the point of duplicating his cosmicism in his own “Dunsanian” tales.
One interesting development in Lovecraft’s pure metaphysics occurred in May of 1923:
I have no opinions—I believe in nothing . . . My cynicism and scepticism are increasing, and from an entirely new cause—the Einstein theory. The latest eclipse observations seem to place this system among the facts which cannot be dismissed, and assumedly it removes the last hold which reality or the universe can have on the independent mind. All is chance, accident, and ephemeral illusion—a fly may be greater than Arcturus, and Durfee Hill may surpass Mount Everest—assuming them to be removed from the present planet and differently environed in the continuum of space-time. There are no values in all infinity—the least idea that there are is the supreme mockery of all. All the cosmos is a jest, and fit to be treated only as a jest, and one thing is as true as another.
The history of the acceptance of the theory of relativity would make an interesting study in itself. The theory was propounded by Einstein in 1905 but was the source of much scepticism on the part of philosophers and scientists; some merely ignored it, perhaps hoping it would go away. Lovecraft’s mentor Hugh Elliot dismisses Einstein in a nervous footnote in Modern Science and Materialism. In early 1920 the matter was taken up by the Gallomo; Lovecraft’s discussion (the only part that survives) begins:
Next on the programme is the Einstein theory, which I must confess at the outset that I cannot discuss authoritatively. I have as yet seen no really coherent account, and many of the articles by professors in local papers admit freely imperfect comprehension on the part of the respective writers. Einstein himself says that only twelve living men can fully comprehend his theory.
And so on for several more pages of windy and contentless verbiage. At least this indicates that Lovecraft was seeking to learn more about the matter, if only from the local paper.
The theory indeed remained largely deductive until the spring of 1923, when the results of observations of a total solar eclipse on September 21, 1922, were finally reported. The New York Times had a front-page article on April 12, 1923, entitled “Sun Eclipse Pictures Prove Einstein Theory” by W. W. Campbell, Director of the Lick Observatory, who declared: “The agreement [of the eclipse observations] with Einstein’s prediction from the theory of relativity . . . is as close as the most ardent proponent of that theory could hope for.”
The curious thing about all this as far as Lovecraft is concerned is that Einstein is unquestionably alluded to in the story “Hypnos,” written around March 1922. There the narrator states: “One man with Oriental eyes has said that all time and space are relative, and men have laughed. But even that man with Oriental eyes has done no more than suspect.” I do not know if Lovecraft read any of the popular accounts of the Einstein theory that had emerged since 1905; but clearly the idea was beginning to gain currency, or at least to be talked about extensively. The mention here that Einstein “has done no more than suspect” clearly refers to the failure of definitive proof of the relativity theory to have emerged at this time; a year later that proof was manifestly at hand.
It is hardly worth remarking that Lovecraft’s wild conclusions from Einstein, both metaphysical and ethical, are entirely unfounded; but his reaction is perhaps not atypical of that of many intellectuals—especially those who could not understand the precise details and ramifications of relativity—at the time. We will see that Lovecraft fairly quickly snapped out of his naive views about Einstein and, by no later than 1929, actually welcomed him as another means to bolster a modified materialism that still outlawed teleology, monotheism, spirituality, and other tenets he rightly believed to be outmoded in light of nineteenth-century science. In so doing he evolved a metaphysical and ethical system not at all dissimilar to that of his two later philosophical mentors, Bertrand Russell and George Santayana.
Some words about Lovecraft’s political views might be in order. American entry into the world war had relieved him of the burden of fulminating against the “craven pacifism” of Woodrow Wilson, to the point that he could even poke fun at his own position in “Herbert West—Reanimator” (West “secretly sneered at my occasional martial enthusiasms and censures of supine neutrality”). In “A Confession of Unfaith” (1922) he states that “a German defeat was all I asked or hoped for.” Later he made the cryptic comment that “The Peace Conference” and other forces “have perfected my cynicism”: he did not elaborate upon this remark, and I do not know its precise import. I find no mentions in letters or essays that the harsh penalties imposed upon Germany by the Allies were unjust: Lovecraft later did indeed come to this opinion, although he came to regard it more as a tactical error than a matter of abstract ethics.
I have no doubt that Lovecraft voted for the Republican Warren G. Harding in the fall of 1920, if indeed he voted at all. I find no mention of Harding or of the repeated scandals that disgraced his administration, but Lovecraft did take note of Harding’s sudden death of pneumonia on August 2, 1923. In “The Rats in the Walls,” written probably a few weeks after this event, he interrupts the narrative oddly by remarking that “I felt poised on the brink of frightful revelations, a sensation symbolised by the air of mourning among the many Americans at the unexpected death of the President on the other side of the world.” In a letter, remarking on a Harding stamp, he is a trifle more cynical: “Harding was a handsome bimbo—I’m sure sorry he had the good luck to get clear of this beastly planet.” Of his successor Calvin Coolidge I find almost no mentions at all for the next five years.
What Lovecraft did instead in the relative political tranquillity of a Republican-dominated decade was to reflect more abstractly on the issues of government. “Nietzscheism and Realism,” which we have already seen to be a compilation of letter excerpts to Sonia, contains a lot of cocksure aphorisms on the subject, largely derived from Nietzsche but with a sort of Schopenhauerian foundation. It does not begin auspiciously: “There is no such thing—and there never will be such a thing—as good and permanent government among the crawling, miserable vermin called human beings.” Nevertheless, “Aristocracy and monarchy are the most efficient in developing the best qualities of mankind as expressed in achievements of taste and i
This view would, with much refinement, become the pillar of Lovecraft’s later political theory. It is expressed here very compactly: “I believe in an aristocracy, because I deem it the only agency for the creation of those refinements which make life endurable for the human animal of high organisation.” Lovecraft naturally assumed (correctly) that he was one of those animals of high organisation, and it was entirely logical for him, when speaking abstractly of the ideal government, to look for one that would suit his own requirements. What he seems to imagine is a society like that of Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, or Augustan England, where the aristocracy both symbolised refinement and culture (if they did not always practise it) and provided enough patronage of artists to produce those “ornaments of life” that result in a rich and thriving civilisation. It is, certainly—at least in the abstract—an appealing system, but Lovecraft surely did not fancy that it could have much relevance to present-day concerns.
When he does address such concerns, it is in tones of magisterial condemnation. Democracy earns his wholesale scorn:
Aristocracy alone is capable of creating thoughts and objects of value. Everyone, I fancy, will admit that such a state must precede democracy or ochlocracy in order to build the original culture. Fewer are willing to admit the cognate truth that democracies and ochlocracies merely subsist parasitically on the aristocracies they overthrow, gradually using up the aesthetic and intellectual resources which autocracy bequeathed them and which they never could have created for themselves.
And in a letter of February 1923: “democracy . . . is a false idol—a mere catchword and illusion of inferior classes, visionaries, and dying civilisations.” This is manifestly Nietzschean: “I have . . . characterised modern democracy . . . as the decaying form of the state.” I do not know that Lovecraft ever espoused democracy, but certainly his reading of Nietzsche just after the war seems to have given him the intellectual backbone to support his view.
The letter in which the above comment is imbedded occurs in a discussion of Mussolini and fascism. There should be scarcely any surprise that Lovecraft supported Mussolini’s takeover of Italy (completed in late October 1922) and that he was attracted by the fascist ideology—or, at any rate, what he took it to be. I doubt that Lovecraft had any real understanding of the internal political forces that led to Mussolini’s rise. Fascism was, at its base, opposed both to conventional liberalism and to socialism; its popularity grew rapidly after the end of the war when the socialists, winning a majority in 1919, could accomplish little to restore Italian society. Mussolini’s takeover of the government was indeed supported, as Lovecraft would later remark, by a majority of the Italian populace; but each of the various groups supporting the dictatorship wished different benefits from it, and when after several years these benefits were not forthcoming, there was so much discontent that repressive measures had to be adopted.
For the time being, however, Lovecraft could revel in the fact that here was a “strong” ruler who scorned liberalism and could “get the sort of authoritative social and political control which alone produces things which make life worth living.” It cannot, certainly, be said that fascism produced any sort of artistic renaissance; but that was not of much concern to Lovecraft at the moment.
Lovecraft’s political views were still very ill-considered, but at least he was beginning to think about broader issues than merely the reunification of England and America, the “crime” of Anglo-Saxons fighting each other in the Great War, and the evils of pacifism. It would be another five to seven years before he did any serious thinking about politics, economics, and society; but when he did so his thought showed a maturity born of actual experience in the world and deeper reflexion on the complex issues involved. In the short term, however, matters of a more personal nature were more pressing.
The end of 1923 saw still more small travels. On November 27 Lovecraft and his aunt Lillian went to the new private museum of George L. Shepley at 292 Benefit Street, where Annie Gamwell worked. (The museum is no longer in existence.) The next day he and C. M. Eddy visited various parts of Providence, especially south of the Great Bridge, that he had not seen before. On December 27, Lovecraft gave Eddy and the visiting James F. Morton a tour of colonial Providence; it was on this occasion that the three of them went to the exquisite First Baptist Church (1775) on North Main Street and ascended to the organ loft, where Lovecraft attempted to play “Yes, We Have No Bananas” but was foiled, “since the machine is not a self-starter.”
In early February Lovecraft wrote a long letter to Edwin Baird of Weird Tales, expressing his irritation at the alteration of the titles of some of his stories, notably the retitling of “Arthur Jermyn” to “The White Ape” (“you may be sure that if I ever entitled a story ‘The White Ape’, there would be no ape in it”). In response to J. C. Henneberger’s request for information on his life and beliefs, Lovecraft unearthed “A Confession of Unfaith” and copied much of it verbatim, prefaced by a somewhat smart-alecky biographical sketch. (Toward the end of his life, when the teenage Willis Conover somehow acquired this letter and wished to publish it, Lovecraft found the document so embarrassing that he threatened physical harm to Conover if he disseminated it.) Weird Tales was throwing a lot of work in his direction, in particular a rush ghostwriting job for Harry Houdini. Lovecraft also claimed to be working on a novel called “The House of the Worm,” an idea that had apparently been percolating in his mind for a year or more, but about which we know nothing; it was probably never begun. But in the midst of all this literary activity we find an anomalous change of personal circumstances. On March 9, 1924, Lovecraft wrote a letter to his aunt Lillian from 259 Parkside Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Was this another visit of longer or shorter duration, as the two New York trips of 1922 had been? Not exactly.
On March 3, at St Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Vesey Streets in lower Manhattan, H. P. Lovecraft had married Sonia Haft Greene.
15. Ball and Chain
New York in 1924 was an extraordinary place. Far and away the largest city in the country, its five boroughs totalled (in 1926) 5,924,138 in population, of which Manhattan had 1,752,018 and Brooklyn (then and now the largest of the boroughs both in size and in population) had 2,308,631. A remarkable 1,700,000 were of Jewish origin, while the nearly 250,000 African Americans were already concentrating in Harlem (extending from 125th to 151st Streets on the west side and 96th Street northward on the east side of Manhattan) because of the severe prejudice that prevented their occupying many other areas of the city. The subway system, begun in 1904, was allowing easy access to many regions of the metropolis, and was supplemented by the extensive above-ground or elevated lines, now nearly all eliminated. Lovecraft, on some of his more remote jaunts around the area in search of antiquarian oases, nevertheless found it necessary to take the more expensive trolleys rather than the 5¢ subways or elevateds. The Hudson Tubes (now called the PATH trains) were constructed in 1908–10 to link Manhattan with the commuter terminals in Hoboken and Jersey City, New Jersey; ferry service was also common between the two states. The remoter areas of the region—say, Long Island or Westchester County to the north of the Bronx—were less easy of access, although the N.Y.N.H.&H. (New York, New Haven, and Hartford) railway lines brought in commuters from Connecticut to Grand Central Station. The mayor of the city was John F. Hylan, a Tammany politician; but he was ousted in 1925 and a “New Tammany” mayor, James J. Walker, was elected in 1926. The governor was the Democrat Alfred E. Smith (1923–28).
These facts and figures, of course, can convey only so much. Although neither the Empire State Building nor the Chrysler Building was as yet built, New York was already the city of skyscrapers, most of them at this time concentrated at the very southern tip of Manhattan, the Battery. (Skyscrapers cannot be built everywhere in Manhattan, since the schist foundation is not uniform; there are strict regulations governing the height and size of buildings in
Out of the waters it rose at twilight; cold, proud, and beautiful; an Eastern city of wonder whose brothers the mountains are. It was not like any city of earth, for above purple mists rose towers, spires, and pyramids which one may only dream of in opiate lands beyond the Oxus; towers, spires and pyramids that no man could fashion, but that bloomed flower-like and delicate; the bridges up which fairies walk to the sky; the visions of giants that play with the clouds. Only Dunsany could fashion its equal, and he in dreams only.
The reference to Dunsany is telling, for this passage, though no doubt sincere in its way, is a clear echo of Dunsany’s “A City of Wonder” (in Tales of Three Hemispheres, 1919), a brief prose-poem in which he tells of his own first sight of New York (“One by one the windows shine from the precipices; some twinkle, some are dark; man’s orderly schemes have gone, and we are amongst vast heights lit by inscrutable beacons”).
Is it a surprise that Lovecraft the antiquarian found the skyline of New York stimulating? Hardly. He would later assert that the skyscraper was not a fundamentally modern form: “tall buildings hav[e] been common in mediaeval Italy, while Gothic towers approximate the same atmosphere. . . . A skyscraper (following Gothic lines or employing classical ornament) can be traditional, while a one-story building (abjuring traditional ornamentation & proportion) can be modernistic.” Lovecraft was well aware that historicist architecture—fostered in late nineteenth-century New York by such architects as Charles F. McKim, William Rutherford Mead, and Stanford White—had produced such landmarks as Pennsylvania Station (1903–10), modelled after the Baths of Caracalla, and other structures that satisfied his classical leanings.
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